Quality- a Never Ending Pursuit

Mar 01, 1993

The importance and difficulty of maintaining quality was driven home to me personally last month. We sent out 12,000 pieces of mail promoting a new book, only to discover after the fact that the price of the book, although listed correctly several times throughout the mailer, was $50 too low on the actual order form. Why did this happen? There were two reasons— both of which commonly create quality problems for our design firm clients and neither of which is an excuse. First, we were in a rush. Because of a record activity level for our firm and the fact that most people here are doing the job that one and a half or two people would be handling elsewhere, we did not do what we should have— that being to run the final promotion artwork through several other people for their review. Secondly, the computer helped us make the error. The order form was taken from another promotion that was done for a lower-priced book (stored in our desk-top publishing system), and after it was pasted in electronically, the price was not changed. Just like our clients who re-use details or specifications developed for previous projects, this kind of mistake is easy to make. As avoidable as this mistake was, it’s not the first time we have made it. Several years ago, we sent out a promotional flyer on another book and left the price off altogether! You’d think that we would have learned. Just like us, A/E and environmental consulting firms that are busy and growing are most vulnerable to making costly errors. Here are some simple suggestions to keep quality problems at a minimum: Check, check and re-check: We’ve found through our own observations that structural engineers use the best checking procedures of all of the design professions. They check and re-check constantly to make sure that every assumption, every calculation, and every detail are correct. Incidents like the Kansas City Hyatt Regency disaster have driven home the reasons for this almost paranoid zeal for quality. Unfortunately, even the best checking procedures are too often ignored when you are in a hurry. Staff adequately to meet the workload: Although I am a firm believer that overstaffing is the number one reason for the poor profit performance of professional service firms, there must be enough people to handle the workload. People must have time to do their jobs right. In addition to the obvious costs of poor quality (rework, legal fees, increased E&O insurance premiums), there’s the long term impact on your business which comes about when you lose an established client through putting out lousy work. Hire the right people in the first place and properly assign them: As an industry, we continue to try to fit square pegs into round holes. Several weeks ago, in the course of management audit interviews for an engineering firm client, we talked to a couple of department heads who flat out said they had no interest in management and believed that being a technical problem-solver was the highest role any engineer could aspire to. With this kind of orientation, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why these guys don’t perform well as managers! Reward good quality and sanction poor quality: All philosophizing aside, the “carrot and stick approach” works. A/E and environmental consulting firms should continually re-examine themselves in this area. I can’t tell you how many times employees of firms tell us that “you can’t do anything to get fired around here.” Firms compound their quality problems by tolerating poor quality work. Then we go and give 4.5% annual increases to our most consistent producers of good quality work, and 3.5% annual increases to our worst service providers. Is it any wonder that with these management practices, quality doesn’t improve? Our most recent mistake could be chalked up to experience. But, as has been said before, “experience is the word men use to cover their mistakes.” None of us can afford this kind of experience. The long term result of poor quality work will be lost clients—and new ones always cost more to get. Originally published 3/01/1993

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.